AS WE APPROACH THE 100th ANNIVERSARY of the Boston Police Strike of 1919 (September 9th, 2019), it is appropriate to reflect upon that historic event as the starting point for the birth of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association in 1965.
1919 was a year of great social change in the United States and specifically in Massachusetts. World War I had just concluded in 1918, resulting in the return of thousands of veterans expecting good jobs and increasing wages. The fledgling labor movement in America was meeting intense opposition from corporate interests. The country had not yet recovered from the devastating effects of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed millions across the world and resulted in labor shortages across the United States. And locally, entrenched politicians and Boston-Brahmin businessmen were very worried about May-day, 1919 riots and bombings in Roxbury which were attributed to Eastern-European immigrants influenced by the Russian/Soviet revolution of 1917 and local anarchist groups seeking to bring radical socialist change to America.
Against that historic backdrop occurred the 1919 Boston Police Strike. For many, many years, the beleaguered officers of the Boston Police Department had labored under deplorable conditions, working 84-96 hours per week (wagon-duty officers having the most hours, for some unknown reason) and living in rancid, rodent/ insect-infested station houses. Parades, special events and court appearances were unpaid, and travel outside of the city, even on an officer’s one-in seven days-off, required the Captain’s special approval. Patrolmen were repeatedly told “wait till next year, be patient” when meekly asking for raises or improvements in working conditions that hadn’t been seen in over a decade.
Despite their patience, continued requests were repeatedly ignored, and so in August 1919, Boston’s Policemen voted to join the American Federation of Labor and were granted AFL charter # 16,807 signed by the famous labor leader Samuel Gompers. John McInnes, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who rode with (future President) Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough-Riders” during the charge on San Juan Hill and who also served during the Indian Wars and was present at the capture of Sitting Bull in 1890, was elected as the Boston Police Union’s (AKA “The Boston Social Club”) first President. (FYI: McInnes and his wife are buried in Mattapan’s Old Calvary Cemetery, near Cummins Hwy. and Harvard St., in a grave re-dedicated by the BPPA/BPRA.) He also joined the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in 1917 during a fourth military deployment in WWI. (McInnes was a traffic officer assigned to Water and Devonshire Sts. in downtown Boston, where he was relentlessly “supervised” due to his union participation and activity). But shortly thereafter, McInnes and all of the elected leadership of the newly-found police union were fired by Boston Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis for disobeying orders; specifically,- by joining a labor union which had been forbidden by BPD rules. And so, on September 9th, 1919, following a tumultuous meeting at Intercolonial Hall on Fay St. at the corner of Berkeley St. in the South End (now occupied by J.J. Foley’s Tavern and registered as a National Historic Site marked by a plaque), 1291 Boston Police Officers, having been left with no alternative, left their positions and went on strike following the 5:45PM roll call. (The vote to strike was 1341 “yes”, 2 “no”).
Many days of rioting, lawlessness, anarchy, injuries and several deaths followed. The National Guard assumed control of Boston’s streets and Governor Calvin Coolidge declared martial law. (Coolidge would later be elected U.S. President due largely to the popularity he had earned from his famous “There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime, anyplace” speech.) None of the striking policemen were ever re-hired. To this day, due to the number of officers hired en masse in the strike’s immediate aftermath, a predictable, cyclical 30-40 yr. employment spike occurs in the Boston P.D. required by large groups of young officers needed to replace retiring veterans; example:- officers hired after the 1919 strike were replaced in the late 1950’s/early 60’s, who were subsequently replaced in the late 1980’s/early 90’s, and who are being replaced today in the current era, 2018, ..)
Following the strike, police union activity remained- (in large part through political intimidation and fear)- non-existent and dormant until the mid-60’s. During the 60’s, great social change occurred, testing the mettle and resilience of many U.S. urban police departments. But pay and working conditions for police officers had remained stagnant for many years. Against this backdrop emerged the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association in 1965. With the determined and aggressive leadership of BPPA Presidents and leaders such as Richard McEachern, Chester Broderick and Robert Guiney, groundbreaking contracts were negotiated, and basic employee rights were established, sometimes after years of arbitration and litigation. During those years, the BPPA of the mid-1960’s 70’s, and 80’s fought repeated battles with various politicians and their media allies who seemed to believe that police officers, like children, “should be seen but not heard”. Former Governor Mike Dukakis, Mayor Kevin White, and other politicians soon discovered that was not a wise belief.
Today, the BPPA continues to fight- often against the prevailing political winds- for the basic rights of the street-level police officer. From 1968’s donated offices at the mouth of the Sumner Tunnel (152 North St.) to rental space at 765 East Third St. over a garage in South Boston, to our first home at 13 Shetland St. in Roxbury to our current professional office building at 295 Freeport St. in Dorchester, the BPPA has evolved with the times. The BPPA fights for our member’s basic rights administratively, legally, politically and through our Pax Centurion publication and website. The BPPA offers dental and eyeglass policies and gives free life insurance ($100,000) to our members up to their retirement. The BPPA gives back to the community through hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable contributions, volunteer services, and numerous community events employing our canteen truck offering food and drink. The BPPA has negotiated what is arguably among the top-ten best contracts for police officers in the United States. As demands and expectations, second-guessing and criticism have grown to levels never envisioned by the BPPA’s original founders, the BPPA’s leaders have had to learn new ways to adapt to a rapidly changing political and social atmosphere. Financially provident and always willing to change and entertain new avenues of dealing with the needs of both our newest members and our long-retired veterans, the BPPA honors both our historic past and our bright future.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Boston Police strike of 1919, we honor and thank those brave officers who had no option but to strike, were never rehired and thought their cause was an ignominious loss. It was not, although they could not have known it at the time. We salute them for their sacrifice and for laying the historical background for today’s BPPA.
“Those who do not remember and learn their history are doomed to repeat it”:
George Santayana, historian.